“I’ve had the pleasure of the first taste of the Flame. It was when I realized we weren’t that much different from moths.” –Remy Breaux
Kindle watched the end of the world and thought nothing of it.
The memories of it came and went through her waking hours and her sleep. The Flame, as the name suggests, found places of warmth within C’dar’s memories. Sometimes that was good places of hands huddled around a bonfire and laughter in the air. Much more often though, it was the fires of war the visions latched onto. The world remembered the day it died. It remembered the bombs, the warships of the warring colonies that brought the first Civilization to its knees. She saw the orbital strikes from the Dreadnaughts, the crash of a Cruiser of the shores, the missiles and the raids from the A.I Darts. She tasted the horror on the air, the desperation locked into the people fighting the war. Kindle blinked the visions away in her own head. The vision was old now. She combed through its contents hundreds of times by now, sitting in her bed among the fireflies and the thick smell of swamp water. A few deep breaths later to anchor herself to reality, she tore the sheet from her bed and walked to the window. She flung it open.
The almost eternal night of the swamp and the barj made it difficult to tell what time of day it was. The rain didn’t help much. Over the crown of the trees, harsh lightning streaked, and rain poured. An unsettling feeling in Kindle in her gut. She hadn’t thought that she would feel the way her pa did about a storm. It never made sense until now. She leaned over the pane of the window, leaning in gathering her strength bit by bit through the humid air. The wind whistled through the willows of the swamp, splashing her face with well-needed droplets of water to cool down. Remy warned her that this would happen the more she broke through the Flames walls. Soon she would be able to block it out. That could’ve have come soon enough. Blocking it all out felt like trying to stop a speeding truck with her hands.
When she thought she was in the clear, another vision swam into her vision. This one felt different than the ones of the past. Urgency ran through her quickening her heart. She saw a quick glance of a valley, tall with its pines and oaks. She heard the river rushing beside her, the smell of its freshwater odd against where she knew she really was. She turned to see the very thing that drew her here. The Distillery wasn’t the one in her memories, the one filled with her uncle’s laughter and her dozens of cousins. The embers of the once massive building still burned, blurry figures standing in the middle within a dome of blue lights. Kindle tried to search through the vision for clues. She came up empty. The vision dissolved seconds later. Is someone dead? Who was there? What happened? She needed to find out.
Grabbing Coal (her father had brought it before she left) from her nightstand, she hurried out of the room. It was afternoon she realized after a time. The workers and servants of the lavish manor buzzed from room to room. Kindle stared over the lip of the railing of the second floor, looking down. The chatter rose at the sight of her. Heads turned every time she made eye contact. She knew that look. Everyone did it when they knew something they didn’t want to share. She took to the steps, descending the spiral with her shoulders squared, back straight. The crowds parted around her. The chatter stopped. Eyes found her and quickly lost focus. She ignored them all. Cassie Caldwell was on a man-hunt for her grandfather. No matter what they needed of her, her family came first. Whatever Remy wanted, it needed to wait.
She found him in his lab. The look from the wooden masks gave her no pause today. Black wax candles burning an odd purple fire sat around his cleared desk. A thin holographic screen, the color of lavender, stretch over the entire length of the room. A foreign alphabet cascaded down the screen in a waterfall of text, the man’s eyes gleaming obvious information there that Kindle couldn’t see. He hadn’t noticed her. She took a few more steps, getting a bit closer. He spoke to whoever he was speaking to with audible clicks from the back of his throat. In the shadows, he looked more alien than he had ever. Kindle swore she saw a few green tentacles draped over his chest like her grandpa’s snow-white beard. Remy’s my pa too. “Grandpa,” she asked in a tentative voice. She searched for a little hardness in her voice and found nothing of the sort. “I’m leaving.”
Remy snapped his fingers and the screen dissolved into a burst of white light. He swiveled in his chair. A spark of what looked like amusement glittered in those purple eyes. He leaned in forward. “Any particular reason why,” he asked, tilting his head.
“My family’s in trouble.”
“Won’t really matter if the world dies.”
“You think I care more ’bout that right now.”
“It’s the wonderful thing called priorities. Young people don’t seem to see its value very much.”
Kindle opened her mouth for a comeback. She tried to think of a witty retort. When nothing came to mind, she snarled out her frustration. The only comfort she found was in the cool finish of her grip of Coal. All logic told her that it wasn’t Remy’s fault that this was happening. He more than likely didn’t have a stock in all of this. The apathy soured her of him further. She understood his concerns and wants. That didn’t mean she has to like it. She cared about her grandpa and pa more than the planet at this very moment. That wasn’t going to change. And he couldn’t stop her no matter how menacingly he sat in that stupid swivel chair. “I’m leaving,” she repeated. “You can’t stop me.”
“Yes, I can,” Remy said with a shrug. “But you’re gonna stay on your own accord because I have something you want.”
“A way to save them.” Remy put his hand up. Kindle hated that she didn’t charge through the conversation anyway. “They’re alive. No one’s hurt. I had one of my ships scout ahead. Your family handled themselves well against the Captain’s platoon. Only a few your family was injured in the attack and took quite a bit down with them. Drifter’s in bad shape last time we saw. He helped one of the little ones out of the building. An unfortunate underestimation almost got him killed. To think that the Civilization developed a fully functioning and sentient droid and a mutant killer to boot. But it is what it is. They handled themselves and that’s all that matters for now.” He kept his hand up. “But how long are they gonna hold out, Cassie? How long before the Major keeps hands off and decimates everyone you love. What will you be able to do with that little pistol alone? You’re a good shot but taking down a cyborg and an android meant specifically to destroy your family, no…. that’s not gonna work.”
“What are you gettin’ at?” Kindle snapped.
“I’m getting at you’re going to need all the help you’re going to get to beat them. You have a rare opportunity to learn something from us, Cassie. Until Woody, we didn’t mingle with your family even when they crashed on that mountain. Honestly, I didn’t care much about them. I daresay they weren’t interesting to me at the time. Then slowly my interest rose. They–or I suppose your family–grew more and more powerful like a primitive race finding metal and inventing fire. Before long, they had their little community in the mountains, the valleys, the forests, and the plains with scavenged and invented technology of their own. They were everywhere and with them came the trouble of your Bluecoats. Still, we didn’t interfere. We stayed here. But sooner or later, they were going to tip the scales against your family. This is where it happens, but you can be the stone on the other side. You can be the Shaman. You can make this difference that you couldn’t before.”
Kindle took some steps forward to the middle of the room, her hand easing off Coal. Remy rocked in his chair. She tried to read his expression. He was smiling but there was nothing there, not in his eyes or the curve his lips like a man pretending to understand what the expression meant. The shadows of the barj danced around his hard features and with it the life of some of the purple candlelight. A coldness swept the room. She took a sharp breath and another step forward, her bare feet against the cold hardwood floors. She straightened her back. Like her grandpa always said, “when you’re feelin’ low, act tough.” She walked to the center of the room, a sharp breath caught in her lungs. “What do you get outta this?” And with that courage, a few orange flames flickered into life. Warmth filled her. “What are you tryin’ you to teach?”
“Fear, understanding, light, and darkness. That’s what I’m tryin’ to teach you. The moment you stepped in here, you made your choice. Whatcha do with it will be up to you?” Remy stood up, straightening his dark purple vest and smoothed his slacks. “I’m going to go for a walk. Care to join? I have things to do around the village and you haven’t had a chance to get to know it better. You can’t stay cooped up in this house forever. I’m more than sure that’s not the type of life that you’re trying to live.”
Kindle sighed, letting go of the tension in her chest. The candlelight died again, leaving the thick darkness of the shadows in its wake. The electricity lights hummed on soon after, filling the lab with a clinically cold white light. The barj remained, its inky black stains against hard dark wood floors and walls. The inched towards her for a brief second. At that moment, they felt more alive. She swore she heard a heartbeat within them. She choked down her fear. Fear, understanding, light, and darkness. The words repeated in the inside of her mind in a loop even after they left the lab.
She followed Remy out through the crowded main parlor and out into the village square. From the center, he took her down what felt like the longest floating wood path in the entire village. The sun peeked from the canopy above, rays digging hard against the thick layers of leaves. The air was cool and fresh from the morning with an odd hominess of the swamp. Kindle allowed herself to soak in the details of the bayou, the tall trees swallowing the water with green touches and brown teeth. A little further away she saw old half sunken shacks and unfinished barebone homes reclaimed by nature. One ivy-covered mansion had become the den of a quite large creature, lumbering through the beams of the first floor with its thick dark brown fur and harsh purple eyes. She didn’t want to know more about whatever that was and hoped with all her might that it didn’t want anything to do with them. They passed it without incident.
Willow’s Grove behind them, they continued onwards. The water of the lagoon gave way to a winding muddy path and up a hill. The air around them thickened to an uncomfortable warmth, choking her with every breath. Sweat dripped down her face and pricked her eyes with its salt. She pushed on by focusing on the things around. Thick brown posts were hammered into the ground and adorned with red roses, yellow daisies, and the occasional odd blue colored flower. Up further, a few were even stone, carved in the harsh lines of a foreign language. They came upon the summit of the muddy hill, a clearing surrounded tall pale, barked trees with soft blue leaves on all sides.
“Watch your step. It gets kinda of bad up here.” Remy flicked his wrist, extending a long wooden pole from a bracelet to his side. A large purple sphere drone rose from the tip of the staff like a gout of flame from a wizard’s palm. Light emitted around them from the AI’s eye, sweeping the area. Soft audible beeps followed every sweep. A scan. For what?
“Have you thought about why I let you keep your weapon? Or even why I let your father bring it in here? I figured at some point I would have to teach something ours but yours will do for now. It’s best that you’ll be comfortable. Do you have ammo? Is it energy or traditional?”
“Good ol’ fashioned bullets.”
“Petro,” Remy called out. The drone turned. “Outfit her with what she needs.”
The drone, Petro, hovered over. “Weapon?” It asked with a smooth, soft voice. Somehow it sounded familiar. Kindle pulled her weapon from her side. The drone scanned it for a brief second, whistling faint song while it worked. Materials began to form in its translucent stomach. It spun metal with the ease of weaver with yarn, light bending to create shells for her weapon. Kindle blinked in amazement, stuffing the spare shells into her pocket. She hadn’t heard of any drone that could’ve done that outside of the Civilization. Doc and his family would’ve known what it was called. Kindle was drawing a hard-blank right now. Her mind was too preoccupied on why she needed the weapon in the first place. Petro dropped quite a few shells in her hand. “Ask at any time during the trial if you need more,” the drone said. “Good luck.” It whistled its way back to its master. Kindle would’ve found Petro amusing if it didn’t drop ammo in her hand and wished her the best. From what, she hadn’t a clue.
She thought to ask; she even would’ve if her grandfather didn’t blow a dang horn. The horn was made of black bone, cut into a twisting spiral and tipped with gold pieces around the mouthpiece. A foreign symbol on the side of the glowed white with each subsequent howl. The sound pulsated through her chest, bumped and burned hot in her ribs. When Remy put the horn down to his side, his lips were red and a little broken on the lower lip. Another sound followed the horn’s died: a powerful stomping and the crunching of wood and stone. She looked at her grandfather again, expecting an answer of some sort. Again nothing. He wouldn’t say what was going on. By now though, she knew what was happening. She also knew when a wild animal was headed her way. Her pa taught her that least.
Survival took over from there.
Kindle wheeled around towards the sound uprooting trees. She watched pa and his brothers deforest some of the valleys for their farms when she young. She remembered large trees crashing into the dust against the weight of Doc’s harvester mechs on those warms days under the sun. She remembered the amazement and trickle of fear she felt then as they fell or worse crunched under the spinning blades. To this, that memory of fear felt like nothing. The monster hacked through the land with little effort and not as clean as the machines. It came through the final patch of trees with an explosive burst of bark, needles, and leaves. Kindle’s eyes widened at the sight of the grueling, twisted monster stampeding after her. The black mass of flesh, like a large lizard with shining wine-colored scales, whipped around on the tips toes of its claws. It blinked at her, oversized head tilting. The motion reminded her of grandfather. This thing ain’t your grandpa. This thing’s gonna kill you.
The first shot was often the best shot. She unloaded with Coal. The first few shots ricocheted off the scales, bouncing dangerously close to her own feet. The only thing it managed to harm was the creature’s demeanor. Before it was angry but curious. Only hot rage remained. It charged at her with its full vigor now, snapping its jaws at her with its hundreds of teeth. Though strong, it wasn’t fast by any means. The run to the clearing must’ve taken a lot of its energy. Kindle needed to keep moving. She focused, a cold concentration falling over her. The creature swiped with one of its red claws, trying to cut her in half. She danced back and landed a few shots in the inner side of the beast’s belly. Pockets of blood hit her on the face, feeling the warmth and taste of it on her mouth. The creature howled and thrashed at her from its anger.
A claw sailed through the air and caught her on the face. New blood, her blood sprayed from the open wound on her forehead and down her right eye. She kept moving, heart pounding in her chest. She ran in circles around the creature and reloading for another round. The lizard (dragon, wyrm, whatever) kept its assault. If anything, it grew more and more ravenous with every attack. She rolled through her next attack, firing at the creature’s head. One bullet caught the right angle, what she was aiming for this entire time, the eye. It exploded in a bubble of blood. The creature howled its pain, doubling over and writhing in the dirt. Can’t do much about your eye, Uncle Monty’s son Tiger had said after Kindle accidentally shot it out and then laughed off. No shame aiming for it when you have no other options. Sometimes you just gotta cheap shot.
Kindle went for the killing blow to the back of the neck. The shot no business missing. Kindle stepped back a little too late. She sailed through the air, her legs swept underneath her by a sweep of the tail and landing on her back. Pain shot up her entire body. Tears rolled down her face. She squirmed, subtly aware of the heavy scaled tail to her right and the recovering beast looming over her. Coal was still firm in her grasp. One thing that ever stuck with her family was to keep her hand on a weapon. She tried again firing at a range so close she felt the heat of her own discharge. Again, the bullets didn’t hit. This time she saw why. Where it had scales for physical defense, it also had adapted another defense. The scales on the back of its neck flared up emitting a light blue pulse of energy, some sort of kinetic defense against barriers like a portable shield. The eye shot was more luck than anything. It wouldn’t allow her to get away with that again Kindle would’ve been impressed if she didn’t fear for her life. It’s a wyrkel and none she like she ever seen before, probably bred for this trial. That means…
She knew how to kill it.
The barj wyrkel snapped down with his maw. Kindle rolled to her feet, narrowly escaping the hundreds of teeth. “Petro! A spear,” she shouted. The wyrkel clawed at her, tearing through the cloth of her shoulder. She cried out in pain. She had to keep moving. The big bastard smelled blood now and with blood, a meal. It jumped forward, trying to crush her with its weight. She managed to dodge barely this time, twisting her body at the last second. Within that moment, Petro the drone dropped lance in her free hand. She spun it upright, the crystallized purple tip shining scattering light from the torches. She went to stab it and got what she expected the entire time: the fire.
Blazes struck her in full force and she smiled. Energy weapons. Bonfires. Extreme sunlight. Any type of heat gave her strength. She pushed through the inferno using her pistol arm and her shoulder. Smoke hissed from the odd holes opening on the surface of her darker skin, tickling the skin and muscle it ran by. She learned to get used to it at a young age. This time though, something was different. More than strength and speed filled her this time. A primal energy filled her this time, attached to the underbelly of the rest of what she already felt. A memory of a woman’s face flashed before her eyes. A comforting, familiar face traced with tears was there and then gone in a second. In its way was a power like she hadn’t felt before. She stepped forward, one step at a time, absorbing all she could to get close enough. She pivoted her body at the last minute as dragon fire stopped. The wyrkel yelped, noticing the tip of the spear a little too late. Mimicking every day, she spent spearfishing with her father, she plunged the spear into the dragon’s throat.
Muscle and gore plopped against the dirt and against her shoeless feet. She stood, spear clean through the shattered teeth of the wyrkel and through the roof of its mouth. What surprised her wasn’t’ the strength of her of her attack. She had done something similar before with enough heat coursing through her. The surprise came with the smoldering remains of everything left. On the tip of her spear was only the head, the rest was gone as though caught in an explosion. White fires burned against blackened bones where a body should’ve been. What was the saying: “don’t fight fire with fire?” Well, she did. Hers had won.
A tiredness swept over her. She dropped the spear tipped with the beheaded and Coal to the ground. Adrenaline still pumped extra beats into her heart but soon that too would fade. Her mind wasn’t on the battle anymore. Her mind was on that woman she saw at her moment of power. The soft features of her familiar dark-skinned face looking down on her, soundless words on her lip and soft tears on her cheeks. Mom. She hadn’t ever seen her. Her dad didn’t have a single picture of her. Yet she knew. Every part of her knew that was her mom. Why now though?
Kindle pushed the thought from her mind. Everything felt a little odd for a second. Her knees quaked, her mind swam but she was still standing. Through the mayhem of everything that happened, Remy stood. There wasn’t a clap or a fanfare of any kind. He stood, head cocked. There was a smile on his face, one that was easily mistaken for pride if she hadn’t seen it a million times on Grandpa Drifter’s face. No. He wasn’t proud of her. He expected her to pass this trial one way or another. What was on Grandpa Remy’s face was a hunger, a want, a need so deep it was everywhere in him. What do you want? She wanted to scream at him. What are you getting out of this? She staggered forward. “Was that acceptable,” she managed to choke out.
Remy laughed. “It seems like there’s much more of Ina in you than I gave you credit. She gave me the same look when I brought her here at your age. You might’ve killed Yana faster than your mother did Oyi. The results were the same. How do’ya feel? Y’know aside from the beatings itself, you should feel different like something opened. That was how Ina explained it. The shadow half of the Flame, I fear, is a lot less open about it so I’m gonna to take her word for it. So…” he arched an eyebrow. “So, tell me. How do’ya feel?
“I feel fine. I just wanna head back now.”
Remy put his hands in the air. “Listen this was a tradition for all Shamans. Or I guess potential Shamans. I had no intention of letting you die and you said it yourself, you wanted to get better at this. You came here wanting to know more and you can leave at any time. You won’t though. I have a thing you want. You want to protect your family from the Bluecoats. I want you to help me save this planet from itself. “That was the agreement,” he squinted his eyes, “was it not our agreement, granddaughter?”
I don’t wanna talk ’bout this right now. Kindle picked up Coal from the ground and plucked her new spear from the carcass. She took in a deep breath, fighting off the heavy fatigue anchoring her every movement. Buried under that fog stirred an uncertain power in herself she couldn’t recognize. Reflexes told her to choke it down, keep it control. The Flame bucked back, rolling up her stomach and up her chest. The pains from the cuts and bruises meant nothing in that brief second of dizzying agony. She exhaled, letting the fire cool. Her mom was right. It was like a door being opened–a door that lost its hinges and laid on the floor. There was no closing it now.